October 17, 2021

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U.S.-China Ties Are Tanking Just When They Need to Get Along

(Bloomberg) — The unfolding coronavirus pandemic could’ve been a moment for the U.S. and China to tackle a shared challenge. Instead, it appears to only be accelerating a long-anticipated separation.

China struck the latest blow Wednesday with the unprecedented expulsion of more than a dozen American journalists covering Beijing for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The provocation comes as part of a tit-for-tat exchange in which the governments of both President Donald Trump and China’s Xi Jinping seek to deflect blame for how they’ve handled the outbreak.

In Beijing, as in Washington, the virus crisis has boosted hardliners over those who favor preserving relations with a key trading partner and military rival. One Chinese official said Wednesday that the two sides were entering a difficult period that could last a long time. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the remarks weren’t authorized, said that “a new Cold War is indeed unfolding.”

Before moving to oust the American correspondents, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman repeated a conspiracy theory that U.S. Army athletes introduced the disease, part of an effort to push back against the Trump administration’s push to blame it for the outbreak ravaging the world economy. Trump has characterized it repeatedly as a “Chinese virus” — including three times early on Wednesday — as he looks to rally his base against a foreign adversary ahead of a November election.

While it’s unclear how far leaders will allow the dispute to escalate, demands for “reciprocity” on visas extend far beyond media access. At the height of trade tensions last year, Chinese students and visiting academics have found their ability to work and study in the U.S. under threat.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday that the country would be “compelled to take further countermeasures” if the U.S. continued down the “wrong path.”

The feud between the world’s two biggest economies — and leading scientific powers — is escalating just as the international community looks for leadership to contain a virus that has infected almost 200,000 people and may have already pushed the globe into recession. In the absence of a clear strategy, nations are going it alone — potentially undercutting each other’s efforts in the process.

China Guts U.S. Press Corps in Beijing With Mass Expulsions

“The government of Xi Jinping has crossed a Rubicon that puts the U.S. and China on opposite banks in an increasingly antagonistic and irreconcilable state of play,” said Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations and a former dean of the Berkley Graduate School of Journalism. “With this kind of self-destructive retaliatory action, it makes it increasingly unlikely the two nations will soon find ways to work together on other critical issues of common interest like the present pandemic, much less future trade and climate change.”

As first, it looked like Trump and Xi might be able to build on good will from the “phase one” trade deal they signed in January to work together against the outbreak, with the U.S. president praising his counterpart’s hard-line approach. But the two governments quickly began bickering over whether Xi’s government was being transparent enough, and the U.S. resumed efforts to curb activities by China’s state media outlets on American soil.

China Further Erodes Hong Kong’s Autonomy With Journalist Cull

In the meantime, China used the opportunity to weaken one of the few sources of critical coverage in its highly censored media landscape: foreign correspondents. Last month, it expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters over an opinion piece that described China as the “real sick man of Asia.” The Trump administration hit back by ousting about 40% of staff at four Chinese media outlets.

“I don’t like seeing that at all,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Wednesday, when asked about the latest Chinese move against U.S. reporters. Pressed about his repeated references to the outbreak as the “Chinese virus,” Trump said that “it’s not racist at all” because “it comes from China” and Xi’s government “could have given us a lot earlier notice.”

The disputes have reaffirmed concerns that the trade pact was merely a pause in hostilities rather than the foundation for a truce. The outbreak and the resulting economic downturn has raised new doubts about China’s ability to meet its pledges to expand imports of American goods and bolstered nationalistic arguments on both sides of the Pacific for a more confrontational approach.

The fight has seen the nations’ diplomatic corps, who had traditionally worked to moderate tensions, thrust onto the front lines of the conflict. U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo irked China earlier this month by describing Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus,” undercutting Beijing’s efforts to raise doubts about the city being the source of the outbreak.

‘Very Unfriendly’

Health experts warn that Trump’s and other adminstration officials’ use of “Chinese virus” risks stigmatizing an entire ethnic group. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded with a pair of tweets repeating an unfounded theory that U.S. Army athletes first brought the virus to Wuhan.

“China is only taking countermeasures,” said He Weiwen, a former official at the Chinese consulate in San Fransisco. “Since the Covid-19 outbreak in China in January, Washington has been very unfriendly, even hostile to China. The journalists’ expulsion was only one of the latest moves, which of course deteriorated the trade environment.”

Still, China’s mass expulsion of American journalists will have far-reaching consequences for the world’s ability to understand what’s going on in the globe’s most populous country. While the newspapers will retain non-American staff and U.S.-based news wires remain, some of the reporters ousted produced groundbreaking stories about China’s mass detention of ethnic Uighur minority and other sensitive topics.

‘Bulletproof’

The country’s leadership also receives daily summaries of international news outlets, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, according to two Chinese officials familiar with the arrangements.

Richard McGregor, a former Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing who’s now a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute, said China’s leaders “must feel bulletproof” as their own outbreak appears to subside and the U.S. struggles with surging coronavirus cases.

“China is now doing things that the hardliners have always wanted to do, but would either have been restrained by other parts of the system or wouldn’t have felt strong enough to get away with,” he said. “It is a moment to move on all fronts, and we see them doing that.”

(Updates to add Trump comments in 11th paragraph)

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